Only once did I get to speak to Cliff Burton Barrows, who recently completed 93 years of a rich life before going to the place he spoke of all of his life - to Heaven near God.
Without a doubt, Cliff was the most famous person to come out of Ceres. Purely a Ceres product, he spent his first 17 years here and graduated in 1940 from Ceres High School. Soon thereafter, by divine appointment, he ran into the world's most famous evangelist, Billy Graham. In doing so, Cliff Barrows, too, became one of the world's most famous evangelists and seen by millions on TV around the globe.
Cliff and I spoke by phone before the three-venue Billy Graham Crusade in the Bay Area in October 1997. He was in the Bay Area ahead of the event to organize and called me from his hotel. He expressed how nice it find the time to run over to Ceres and spend time at the old Barrows home place at Faith Home and Service roads. There was simply too much work to get away. "These responsibilities have been so busy for so many years," Barrows told me at the time. "But the responsibilities lead to wonderful opportunities."
I asked about any possible retirement plans, given that he was 74, to which he suggested his work would continue "until Jesus calls me home." The same for Billy Graham, he said.
Weeks after our 20-minute phone conversation, I had the opportunity to take my children to the Billy Graham crusade at the Cow Palace. I saw Cliff walk up to the podium and shuffle paperwork for a few minutes when I felt the need to walk to the front, lean over the rope and introduce myself. I'm not sure if he heard me too well - or made the connection that I was editor of his hometown paper - but he gave me a friendly wave and acknowledged my presence. Then almost instantaneously he started speaking into the microphone, as if on cue, with the spotlight shining on him. The "show" was on. I felt like the entire Cow Palace was staring at me and I quickly exited back for my seat.
It was my only encounter face to face with Cliff Barrows.
More than announcer
Barrows wasn't just an announcer at Billy Graham's crusades. He was vice president of the Billy Graham Association, and program and music director of the crusades. Cliff was active at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Ashville, N.C. where he taught and led worship.
Ceres actually played a significant role in the history of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham was in Modesto for a celebrated 1948 crusade, which came about because of Barrows. Helping to organize the first night of the crusade - under a tent at La Loma Avenue and Burney Street in Modesto - was Cliff's brother-in-law, Ben Jennings. Graham drove to Ceres and the plan was for Barrows and Graham to meet in Texas and drive their respective Buicks to Barrows' parents' home at Service and Faith Home roads. Graham, however, arrived at the Ceres ranch of Charles and Harriett Griggs Barrow about an hour behind Cliff.
Also dropping in was George Beverly Shea, the famous singer who used his rich baritone voice at the crusades, and his wife Irma.
The Barrows' ranch house was too small to accommodate everyone. The Sheas stayed at the ranch house while Graham, it is said, stayed at the Don Pedro Motel, which may have been an early-day Ceres motel.
It is said that Billy Graham practiced his sermons in the Barrows barn that most recently was the home of Juda's Country Gathering, which closed in 2012 after an 18-year run.
Barrows explained to me how the so-called Modesto Manifesto came to be. With the movie "Elmer Gantry" popular at the time, there were fears that sexual scandals could take down the successful ministry so Graham and his team designed a plan to head off the potential for scandal.
"We met in the orchard for prayer on a couple of occasions. Bill had asked us to consider the pitfalls of evangelism which we should guard against. We didn't know what God was going to do with the ministry and we were just going to take the invitations that came. We wanted to guard against the pitfalls that befell many others. We prayed about them.
"There were four items on our lists. There were integrity, accountability - accountability to others and to a board - and morality to walk before the Lord, stay pure to our wives and guarding against the temptation to compromise in this area. The fourth was in encouraging local pastors in the ministry."
The group gathered a bit later, prayed about the concern and came up with a plan of action. Rules included never allowing men and women to be alone behind closed doors.
"We called it the Modesto Manifesto. And we prayed about this and it was really on my father's ranch that we committed these tenants. That's why that place has such significance to us."
During the two-week crusade in Modesto, an estimated 10,000 persons attended, many responding to an altar call for salvation. Former Ceres resident Mary Ellen Martinez (later Pitts), along with Virginia McCulley and Sue Munday, were invited by Barrows to sing a trio during the Modesto Crusade. Pitts told me that occasionally she glanced over at Billy Graham, who was waiting his turn to speak, thinking "What a wonderful older man." She laughs now remembering that through her high school eyes 30-year-old Graham seemed old.
Barrows led a high-profile life few ever have the opportunity to live. He rubbed elbows and prayed with the world's most famous, including U.S. presidents. In 1951 Barrows accompanied Graham and two other associates to the White House to meet with President Harry Truman. The four men prayed with Truman in the White House Oval Office. The visit would be dogged by controversy when the naïve Graham, then 31, repeated everything Truman had said in the private meeting and it was picked up in the newspapers. Truman was embarrassed and refused to endorse Graham's work or see him again.
Cliff's beginnings go back to the time the Barrows family moved to Ceres in 1907. It was in Ceres that Charles Tilson Barrows met the attractive Harriet Maurine Griggs, a 1922 Ceres High School graduate. The June 8, 1922 edition of the Ceres Courier carried a front-page article on the forthcoming wedding of the couple. The marriage would produce five children including the oldest, Cliff, born a year later. The Courier article described the bride as a "charming young lady and an accomplished musician and numbers her friends by the score." The groom was described as a "prominent rancher of Smyrna Park." The area referred to not the well-used Ceres park but a tract of farm land in the Faith Home Road area. Charles not only farmed the ground but he worked as a buyer for the Thornton Canning Company in Sacramento.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Oakland.
"I did have godly parentage," Barrows told me. "I was born out there on Service Road, a couple three houses down from where I lived."
His birth came April 6, 1923.
Harriet was a "wonderful homemaker," he recalled, and she kept the household running smoothly within the house Charles built with his own hands and for which he continued to add onto to as the family grew.
Ceres a wonderful town
For 17 years Barrows lived in the area as his parents grew crops at Service and Faith Home roads. His grandparents lived a short distance across Ceres on the west side. He recalled about 1,500 residents living in Ceres and said "it was a very wonderful area for us to grow up in."
Barrows recalled that "a bike ride into school was quite a ride." When he arrived he would often hear classmates call him "Wheel" as in "wheelbarrow."
Claude McKnight, who was once mayor and owner of the town drug store at the northwest corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets, gave Barrows a job as a soda jerk, the guy who served up colas and scooped ice cream.
Cliff enjoyed playing lots of tennis, baseball and basketball at Ceres High during his years there from 1936 to 1940. He recalled using the family barn as a tennis backstop for practice. He also liked to work with wood. Some of his happiest days occurred when Dad took the kids salmon fishing in the nearby Tuolumne River and in the Trinity Alps for trout.
"So many Ceres people had a positive influence on me. I especially remember Walter White, who was grammar school principal."
He stayed in touch with Geneva White, Mr. White's widow for she was Cliff's third grade teacher in Ceres. Mrs. White became a "faithful prayer supporter" of the ministry.
Barrows returned to Ceres many times over the years to visit his sister. He also stayed in touch with classmates John Bowman, Grant Lucas, Carl Rinehart and Betty Sullivan.
The Barrows attended the First Baptist Church at Fifth and North streets where he was strongly influenced by two pastors in Carl Dearfelt and Paul Jackson. Cliff accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior when he was 14. Cliff's love of music and the Christian experience in Ceres melded well together. Being a part of the church allowed him to sing all the hymns of the faith and lead music. His grandmother, Mayme Griggs (1881-1957), was pianist at the church and helped him develop his musical talents. She is buried at the Ceres Memorial Park with Cliff's grandfather, Clifford Ray Griggs (1880-1969).
"My dad taught me the best lesson," Barrows told The Charlotte Observer in 2010. "I evidently wanted to get them to sing a little stronger, so I kind of bawled them out. And my dad said: ‘Son, you did pretty well. But let me give you a little tip: You'll never get people to sing better by telling them they didn't do too good. Tell them they did well, but you think they can do better.' "
Cliff and his sister, Mary Jean Barrows Jennings, would go out together into the orchards and play and sing for the field hands. The two later produced one of the first radio stations in the Valley.
"The Christian faith is a singing faith," Barrows said. "And a good way to express it and share it with others is in the community singing."
His aunt, Helen Griggs, was willing to pay his way through medical school after he initially envisioned becoming a surgeon. But God had different plans for Cliff Barrows, Ceres High School graduate of 1940. He committed to serving God in full-time ministry while at Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center near Felton.
Barrows said he respected the medical profession "but I always wanted to be in the center of God's will. I felt I had a real calling upon my life by God. I've never regretted it."
After receiving his diploma, Barrows attended Bob Jones College (now University). It was there he met his sweetheart and future wife, Wilma "Billie" Newell. They married in 1945.
Cliff graduated from Bob Jones in 1944 and returned to Ceres to be ordained by Pastor Jackson and then served as an assistant pastor at a Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn.
It was on Cliff's and Billie's honeymoon that history was made. They were staying with a friend who mentioned this young 24-year-old fiery preacher by the name of Billy Graham who would be speaking that night at a Youth for Christ camp meeting in an Asheville, N.C. conference center. Barrows remembered seeing Graham preach in Minnesota and wanted to see him again. Graham, who was from Montreat, N.C., just a few miles away, wanted to incorporate music into the program but was without a music leader and asked for a volunteer. Cliff's friend introduced the Barrows to Billy Graham.
"The music leader had been sick all week. We were on our honeymoon. A friend introduced us and told Billy that my wife played piano and that I could lead music. Bill, with a smile, said, ‘Come along. We won't be choosey. We'll have a good time.'"
Billie played the piano while Cliff, then 22, directed the singing.
Barrows and Graham reunited weeks later at the Billy Sunday Tabernacle in Winona Lake, Ind., where Barrows once again led music. It was the start of a lifelong association that reached the world.
Cliff prayed about his role and felt God was saying be available for Graham's music needs as preaching opportunities continued.
Ironically Cliff regretted not learning to play the piano and for one of the world's most well-known music leaders he only liked to solo "when necessary." The trombone he could play mostly hung off his arm at events, he joked.
At a hotel room in Philadelphia in 1948, Cliff told Graham: "As long as you need me I'll be available to you for the rest of my life."
Barrows called Dr. Graham "Bill" so he wouldn't confuse things with wife Billie, who died of cancer in 1994.
"When I met Bill I had no idea what it would lead to."
Barrows joined the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as its music director. He later put his college radio training class to use by directing the "Hour of Decision" radio program in 1950. Cliff also served as president of World Wide Pictures, Graham's Christian movie production company.
For significant contributions to Gospel music, Barrows was inducted into the Nashville Gospel Music Hall of Fame in April 1988, and into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in February 1996. Barrows was also inducted into the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists' "Hall of Faith" in 2008.
Barrows shared that the earlier Graham crusades ran three to six weeks. The 1957 Cow Palace Crusade, for example, lasted seven weeks. The length of the stadium venues shortened around 1982 "which only heightened the intensity of the preparation, Barrows said.
After the death of his first wife, Cliff married Ann Prince, who also had lost a spouse to cancer. The couple moved from Greenville, S.C., to Marietta, Ga., and later relocated to Marvin, N.C. They made it out to the Barrows ranch in Ceres together, always under the radar of the media. His parents were gone by then. Charles Barrows had been an active member of the Gideon's and the Christian Businessman's Association before his death in 1991. Cliff wrote a glowing tribute to his dad shortly thereafter in Graham's monthly magazine. Harriet Barrows passed away in 1988.
Knew Wayne Salter
In 2013 when Wayne Salter turned 100 in Ceres, he heard from Cliff Barrows in a letter: "My, how the memories flood my heart and mind as I think back some 70 plus years ago when you took a chance hiring this young neighbor boy. That was a special privilege for me then, Wayne, to help you in your cutting shed and later grading peaches in the peach harvest. It is even a more meaningful joy to think about it now as I reflect on those wonderful years. I have so many varied memories involving the family on both sides of Faith Home Road. And I remember your first wife, Florence, who was a very lovely lady. I especially wanted to please her and all the ladies of the cutting shed as they'd bade for excellence and speed as they would finish off a box, I would have to add another tray to the stack."
Death at 93
Cliff died on Nov. 15, 2016 at Carolinas Medical Center in Pineville, N.C. At age 98, Billy Graham was in no condition to attend his lifelong friend's funeral. He did issue a statement reading: "There wouldn't be a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the way it is today without him. He was used of the Lord more than anyone else to keep us together with his strength, energy, devotion and love for the Lord. Cliff set an example and was a role model of what a Christian ought to be. His contribution to my ministry cannot be measured in human terms."
Graham's son, Franklin Graham and now leader of the association, said "Not only was he one of my father's closest friends, but he was a friend to all of us on the team and in the family. Growing up, and until the day of his death, I called him ‘Uncle Cliff.' He was very much a part of our family."
Billy Graham once predicted that when he and Cliff got to heaven he would have nothing to do because all who made it had would have already been preached to. But he said Cliff would be busy leading the angels in song.
"I'll be out of work," Graham concluded, "but not Cliff."